Khan Research Laboratories - History


During the early stage of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) put its primary effort into developing the plutonium-based nuclear weapons. Following India's surprise nuclear test in 1974 — codename Smiling Buddha, the PAEC launched a secret uranium enrichment project, with Sultan Mahmood as its project-director. Work at the Kahuta site was initiated by Prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as part of Project-706. In spring of 1976, Abdul Qadeer Khan joined the programme and worked for a short period under the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. However, Khan developed serious disagreement with the officials of the PAEC who were focused on developing the centrifuge technologies and methods ingeniously. After a meeting with Bhutto, Khan gained autonomous control of the project and established the research site that later became to known as the "Engineering Research Laboratories (ERL)". Khan did not want to have PAEC involved in the ERL's work, and instead favored the Corps of Engineers to lead the programme. Wanting a capable administrator, Bhutto asked the Chief of Army Staff for the selection, and the Engineer-in-Chief chose Brigadier Zahid Ali Akbar to lead the program.

Because the experiments were deemed too dangerous to conduct in a major city, the operations were moved in a remote mountainous northern areas of Pakistan. Both the facility and its related laboratories, and the nearby city of Kahuta, were built by the Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers under command of Lieutenant-General Zahid Ali Akbar. The Military Engineering Service of Pakistan Army also contributed in the construction of the uranium enrichment plant at Kahuta. Conducting a classified research, the facility was heavy secured by both the Pakistan Army and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). All employees needed badges to pass a checkpoint, and the laboratories are electronically fenced and guarded.

Originally known as Engineering Research Laboratories (ERL), the facility was renamed Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) in May 1981 by the Military President and Chief of Army Staff General Zia-ul-Haq in the honor of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan. KRL began producing HEU in 1986, and Pakistan's fabrication of weapons may have begun soon thereafter, with highly enriched 6UF being reduced to uranium metal and machined into weapon pits. By the late 1980s, Pakistan was advertising its nuclear capabilities; publishing technical articles on centrifuge design, including a 1987 article co-authored by Qadeer Khan on techniques for balancing sophisticated ultracentrifuge rotors.

According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Chinese technicians were present at Kahuta in the early 1980s, an unconfirmed indicator of Chinese assistance in the development of equipment at Kahuta. The U.S. intelligence community concluded that 5,000 ring magnets supplied by China in 1996 were meant for special suspension bearings mounted at the top of rotating centrifuge cylinders. During his debriefings in 2005-7, Qadeer Khan alleged that in 1980s the military government of President General Zia-ul-Haq had him and the KRL to led the establishment of HEU programme in the Chinese nuclear program, and provided technical support to China's centrifuge and other classified programs. Abdul Qadeer Khan also alleged that "KRL has built a centrifuge facility for China in Hanzhong province".

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